Any time you try to rank anything, it’s open to a lot of scrutiny. In this case, where I try to rank the top 10 current NBA players, regardless of any stat lines or analytics, it all comes down to personal opinion, so this won’t be a stat-heavy post. ESPN, CBS, and several other outlets have taken that approach before the season started, so I’m embracing this for what it is since there is no objective way to rank the NBA’s top players.
1. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
This is not a “best in their prime” pick, it’s looking at who is best right now and I feel like Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard has eclipsed LeBron James in that regard. Leonard is the definition of a complete player. He’s gone from being a player with a limited offensive game earlier on in his career with the San Antonio Spurs. Now he’s capable of dominating inside and outside.
He’s also the league’s best perimeter defender and makes it look easy. You would think there really wasn’t room for much improvement in Leonard’s game, but this Summer he apparently worked on his ability to distribute the ball. He’s displayed that passing ability to start the season, but that’ll be even more dangerous when Paul George is off the injured list. Being able to drive and draw in the defense and dish out to George in his spots is going to make the Clippers hard to stop.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
James may be another year older, but he is no doubt still a top two player. James is capable of being every bit as dominant as he has been for years, racking up points, rebounds and assists like he did against the Spurs on Sunday for a triple-double, but James has taken on a different role now that Anthony Davis and several other new players are now on the Lakers roster. James facilitates the offense and seems to have a good sense of when to attack and when to get other players involved so they get their touches early and get into a flow offensively. It’s one of the reasons the Lakers have gotten off to a nice start and several of the new faces are making seamless transitions.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis seems to be getting higher and higher on lists like these every single year. Soon it’s going to be a three-horse race at the top. Giannis is very similar to Durant in that he is special at his size, but he seems to be faster and more athletic. He also seems to have the strength of a freight train on his fast-break drives in transition. However, one weakness keeps him from usurping Durant on this list, and that’s the lack of a consistent midrange shot. If he was able to stop and pull-up from midrange, it would cancel out some of the defensive tactics teams have used on him, especially in the playoffs last season.
4. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Right on the list of toughest players to defend along with Durant above is Houston Rockets guard James Harden. He’s one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA, and it doesn’t seem to matter who is in front of him, Harden can go to the array of tools he has in his repertoire to make life tough on any defender. That alongside his ability to pass and rebound gives him his rightful place on this list regardless of his defensive deficiencies.
5. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
While another player on this list and several who just missed the mark would like to claim ownership to the throne of best NBA center, Anthony Davis holds onto it tightly for now. If there was any doubt with Davis’ drama in New Orleans, he is showing the NBA world why he belongs there with his production this season, even with having to share shots with one of the league’s most dominant players. Davis’ 40-20 night was proof positive that Davis is more than deserving of his crown.
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Like Harden, Curry is one of the top scorers in the NBA and he’s a big part of the changing of the guard in the NBA in terms of offense. Curry is likely out for the rest of the season, so any hopes of him going on a crazy MVP run are now dashed. He struggled from long range to start the season, but his ability to knock down three-pointers with somewhat limitless range and his ability to work off the ball makes him one of the most dangerous scorers in the NBA.
7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
After Davis, Embiid is probably the next best center in the league. He was a candidate for MVP last season and he led the 76ers on a nice playoff run until health issues limited him, which has been the biggest issue of his NBA career. Embiid is a dominant center on both sides of the court and the fact that he still seems to be improving should be a scary thought for the rest of the league.
8. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Of all of my picks here, I expect Westbrook’s inclusion to be the most scrutinized. A popular topic last season was whether or not Westbrook, despite his off-the-charts numbers, was a good teammate and helpful to his team. Not much has seemed as blasphemous as that statement. Teamed up with another walking triple-double in Houston this season with Harden, Westbrook has been a perfect fit with the Rockets and has probably been the more consistent of the two.
9. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
George averaged career highs in Oklahoma City last season, and he now joins Leonard in Los Angeles. He finished third in MVP voting last season and was also a NBA All-Defensive First team selection. While he may not match the numbers he averaged last season right away as he gets comfortable with the Leonard and the rest of the Clippers. Considering he was injured last season, it’ll be interesting to see what George does at 100 percent.
10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard is probably among the most underrated players on this list. He’s considered a star player but always seems to be thought of as a second-tier player. Lillard is Portland’s unquestioned leader. He is the reason they’ve been a top seed in the Western Conference playoffs over the last few years and he’s also the reason Portland has beaten teams in the playoffs that they seemingly have no business beating. Lillard lives and thrives in big moments and there’s not much else he can do for his team.
Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Injured)
If Kevin Durant were healthy, he would be #3 on the list above.
It’s easy to forget about Durant since he is injured for the season, but ask most defenders in the NBA who they like to guard least, and Durant has got to be at or near the top of that list. Durant has a game that defies his size. He’s a silky-smooth shooter from anywhere on the court, so he can use his height advantage to shoot over defenders or his speed to get past them easily.
Nikola Jokic, Kyrie Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns